Reading children the classic 'The People Shall Continue' by Simon Ortiz will pave the way to a sound education about the events leading up to and following the so-called First Thanksgiving.

Beyond the So-Called First Thanksgiving: 5 Children's Books That Set the Record Straight

Debbie Reese

It’s November, a time of year that many parents, teachers, and librarians look forward to giving children books about what is commonly—and erroneously—called “The First Thanksgiving.” Others seek books that counter the narrative of Pilgrims and Indians warmly sharing a meal together, and still others want to avoid that disingenuous feel-good story altogether and provide children with books that are about indigenous people, books that provide insights and knowledge that are missing from all too many accounts.

Your local bookstore probably has a special shelf this month filled with books about “The First Thanksgiving.” In most of them, Native peoples are stereotyped, and “Indian” instead of “Wampanoag” is used to identify the indigenous people. When the man known as Squanto is part of the stories, his value to the Pilgrims is that he can speak English, and he teaches them how to plant and hunt. The fact that he was kidnapped and sold into slavery in Spain—if mentioned at all—is not addressed in the story because elaborating on it would up-end the feel-good story.

But there is an antidote to these books, and it goes beyond volumes that merely counter the feel-good tale. There are a multitude of works by Native writers who tell stories from their experience and history. While Thanksgiving is a good time to grab people’s attention about Wampanoag-European interactions, it does not need to frame the story. These books give a far more nuanced, and accurate, account of Indigenous Peoples. They will set children and adults alike straight on what really happened around the time of the so-called First Thanksgiving, and what Native life is like today.

1. The People Shall Continue, by Simon Ortiz (Children’s Book Press, 1977)

The starting point for this picture-book poem, illustrated by Sharol Graves, is not 1492, nor is it 1621. The story begins the moment that “all things came to be,” when “the People were born.” This provides an immediate departure from the typical re-telling of creation stories by non-Native writers, who tend to cast our stories in a romantic and mystical realm.

Right off the bat, Ortiz tells us that the People differ in how they came to be.

Some say, “From the ocean.”
Some say, “From a hollow log.”
Some say, “From an opening in the ground.”
Some say, “From the mountains.”

As the poem progresses, the People start talking about strangers who seek treasure, slaves and land. Across the continent, the People fight to protect themselves.

In the West, Pope called warriors from the Pueblo and Apache Nations.
In the East, Tecumseh gathered the Shawnee and the Nations of the Great Lakes, the Appalachians, and the Ohio Valley to fight for their people.

In the Midwest, Black Hawk fought to save the Sauk and Fox Nation.
In the Great Plains, Crazy Horse led the Sioux in the struggle to keep their land.

Osceola in the Southeast, Geronimo in the Southwest, Chief Joseph in the Northwest, Sitting Bull, Captain Jack, all were warriors.

The People signed treaties, and many were moved. Their children were taken to boarding schools.  Throughout, parents told their children:

“You are Shawnee. You are Lakota.
You are Pima. You are Acoma.
You are Tlingit. You are Mohawk.”

Through the years, the People kept their stories alive. Then, they realized, it was the powerful forces of the rich and of the government that made not only them but also others suffer: Black People, Chicano People, Asian People, and poor White people. Ortiz ends with a call to all Peoples to ally against forces that seek to destroy the humanity within each of us.

We must ensure that life continues.
We must be responsible to that life.

With that humanity and the strength
Which comes from our shared responsibility

For this life, the People shall continue.

2. Muskrat Will Be Swimming, by Cheryl Savageau (Tilbury House Publishers, 1996)

Set in the present day, this book is about a young girl being taunted by schoolmates. Her grandfather helps her cope with bullying by telling her their Skywoman story, which is part of the creation story of the Haudenonsaunee.




3. First Americans, series by Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve (First Americans Books, various years)

This picture-book nonfiction series, similar in scope to Ortiz’s The People Shall Continue, consists of eight books profiling the Apache, Cherokee, Cheyenne, Hopi, Iroquois, Seminole and Sioux. Each one begins with a creation story and concludes with present-day information about each tribe and its people. In each, Sneve provides information about leaders, past and present.

4. Indian Shoes, Cynthia Leitich Smith (HarperCollins, 2002)

This easy-reader chapter book is about Ray Halfmoon, a Seminole-Cherokee boy, and his grandfather, who live in present-day Chicago. Indian Shoes is one of six stories in the book. Sprinkled with humor and warmth, each story is rich with details about Native life. Being set in Chicago, it makes clear that Native people are part of today’s America, and that some of us—be it by choice or other circumstances—live away from our homelands.


5. The Birchbark House, by Louise Erdrich (HyperionBooks for Children, 1999)

Another chapter book, this one about the Ojibwe people and their early encounters with whites who were moving into their homelands. An award-winning book, it launched a series that now has four books in it: Game of Silence (2005), Porcupine Year (2008), and Chickadee (2013). The fifth book, not yet published, is titled Makoons.

RELATED: Native American Heritage Month: Children’s Books for Your Black Friday Shopping List

Tribally enrolled at Nambe Pueblo, Debbie Reese holds a doctorate in Education and publishes American Indians in Children's Literature

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Les Graff's picture
Les Graff
Submitted by Les Graff on
My understanding of the "first" Thanksgiving with the Pilgrims was that the Native people shared their idea of celebrating the bounty of life and giving thanks to the Creator with the Pilgrims. The Native People's of Massachusetts celebrated 8 thanksgivings a year before European arrival, and taught The Pilgrims the concept. The Pilgrims were tailors and city dwellers in Europe, clothing makers, and Squanto taught them not only how to farm , but how to fish, how to hunt and what was edible in the wild along the beaches and in the forests. The Native people brought all the food and out numbered the Pilgrims by 2 to 1. Today's Thanksgiving dinner is 100% Native. The turkey, the potatos, the corn, cornbread, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie, sweet potatoes, and yams. All of these foods were developed by Indians, long before European arrival. Squanto was kidnapped twice to Europe And found his way back both times. He died in Massachusetts, thought to have been poisoned by a jealous rival.

joyce blunt belt's picture
joyce blunt belt
Submitted by joyce blunt belt on
thank you for telling you history. i have found that the truth of history depends on who is doing the telling. so far most history is told through the eyes of the white man. most of this history is a lie. if you seek the truth you will find it. i am glad to know your truth.

Helen Warren's picture
Helen Warren
Submitted by Helen Warren on
I will be adding these to our reading list for homeschooling. Also, these books will be gifts for my grandchildren on their birthdays. Thank you so much for this post.

Nancy Gorrell. 's picture
Nancy Gorrell.
Submitted by Nancy Gorrell. on
There are books about the Indigenous thanksgiving ceremonies out there. I understand that at the equinoxes and solstices ceremonies of thanksgiving were held. Same thing all over the world. Life depended on marking the seasons and respecting and living WITH nature and celebrating it with thanks giving.

Kris O'Grady's picture
Kris O'Grady
Submitted by Kris O'Grady on
Although we are not native, we are a racially mixed family, so I intend to buy a few of these books for my granddaughter.Thanks

Douglas A. DeFrates's picture
Douglas A. DeFrates
Submitted by Douglas A. DeFrates on
Thank you!

Jane Boyink's picture
Jane Boyink
Submitted by Jane Boyink on
Truth is always vital, but it is also wrong to omit good things in order to stress the bad ones. A good Thanksgiving with the Indians is a start of goodness in that historic time and the first step in how things did improve. God bless humanity.

Suzy Hamme's picture
Suzy Hamme
Submitted by Suzy Hamme on
These do not begin to cover this subject. Please look for any book by Joseph Bruchac. There is a children's biography of Squanto's life - all of it as well. The History of US by Joy Hakim is an outstanding series beginning with the people who lived on this continent long before the Europeans ever thought about it. The entire series is inclusive, plus it does not tell students what to think, but just presents the information from many perspectives.

sally nathenson-mejia's picture
sally nathenson...
Submitted by sally nathenson... on
Thank you Debbie, I always learn something new from you!! Greetings from Denver, when are you coming to visit??

mike chivers's picture
mike chivers
Submitted by mike chivers on
I just watched a Peanuts' "Mayflower" voyager vhs from the 80's with my kids--I was amazed that it was mostly accurate. It didn't cover the grave robbing, the pillaging of Wampanog's supplies or the short-lived nature of the Pilgrim's "good will" but it was close considering when it was made

Bonnie koster's picture
Bonnie koster
Submitted by Bonnie koster on
I dont understand why people always refer to my people as "sioux". No such word existed 600 years ago, when my ancestors called themselves Sicangu Lakota.

Zach's picture
Submitted by Zach on
Any book ideas for toddlers? The first one seems the closest, but still too many words. Thanks!

Michael Madrid's picture
Michael Madrid
Submitted by Michael Madrid on
Great selection of books and although most of them may be too elementary for a high school library, I may try to procure some. I'm sure "The Birchbark House" by Louise Erdrich will be popular; we have "Lakota Woman" by her and it's checked out often.

Barbara Pratt's picture
Barbara Pratt
Submitted by Barbara Pratt on
You might want to check out "Wauganauksi Hero's Journey" and "Hunt" by animatqua. They are e-books available through Amazon and Club Lighthouse Publishing co.

Kathleen S Tajeu's picture
Kathleen S Tajeu
Submitted by Kathleen S Tajeu on
Thank you... getting this information on FB is a key reason why I still persist with my FB..... Will share.... the information ... and look to buy the books.

Natalie J Evans's picture
Natalie J Evans
Submitted by Natalie J Evans on
This is a great answer to the lack of knowledge and information department. Thank you for positing these books. Now there are no more excuses for lack of books and knowledge.

Anonymous's picture
Submitted by Anonymous on
We need to know our own story. This story needs to be taught in the home to our children and grand-children. We are the FIRST AMERICANS. -bj

Maria C.Ciancio's picture
Maria C.Ciancio
Submitted by Maria C.Ciancio on
Native Americans have been mistreated, lands stolen, taken to reservations. etc. Yet the illegals that come to this country and commit all sorts of crimes are catered to. The US owes the Native Americans big time but instead favors illegals.

berte issler's picture
berte issler
Submitted by berte issler on
dont forget Squanto. i female native ameriican girl who has a premonition when she sees the pilgrim ships. she tells her grandfather the chief not to let them land.

Theresa Schimmel's picture
Theresa Schimmel
Submitted by Theresa Schimmel on
Great listing of books, ones that should be in every school and library.

Gary Barwin's picture
Gary Barwin
Submitted by Gary Barwin on
Great suggestions. I'd add my favourite, Thomas King's "A Coyote Columbus Story." Brilliantly funny as well as incisive.